When I was a kid in the 70s, my parents didn't call it "budget travel." We just called it a family vacation. That's how we rolled back then, in a sporadically air-conditioned 1976 brown Dodge van with a homemade plywood luggage rack/loft in the back. Whenever Dad had to slam on the breaks, whichever kid was on the loft would go rolling off and land in the cardboard box of red delicious apples and Hi-C Fruit Punch. But that was part of the adventure. Hilarious and gonzo and totally fun.
And so it is from this perspective that I made up my Definitive Guide to Budget Travel. I wish I could tell you specifically where to go, but finding your own nirvana is part of the fun, too. And I'm not telling you the name of the heavenly rental cabins that my family found last summer, because it's hard enough to get a reservation there as it is. I will tell you that it's in Minnesota and it's on a lake, so that narrows it down to 10,000.
- Get out in nature. It is a scientifically provable fact that I think being out in nature will reduce your stress level. If you have a wide open sky, crystal clear shimmering water, wild flowers, and clean air, your cortisol levels drop. If you have all those things plus a bottle of wine after the kids are all asleep, it double drops. If you are a low stress individual to begin with, like, say, a child, then just imagine what the great outdoors will do for you.
- Don't call it "budget." Instead of, "I'm sorry, kids, but we're trying to cut back on our spending, so for our summer vacation this year, we're just driving up to Lake Leech for a few days" repackage it as, "Awesome news, kids! For our summer vacation we're spending three whole days at a mysterious cabin on a shimmering lake out in the great wild outdoors!" For a while my kids went to a school in a very competitive, wealthy neighborhood. The teachers would always ask on the first day where all the kids had gone for summer vacation, and all the kids would answer "Hawaii" or "a Caribbean cruise." Once I figured this out, I deleted the phrase "Grammy's condo in Dallas" from our vocabulary and replaced it with "St. Barts". The next September when the teacher asked where everyone went for summer vacation, my kids answered with a bored sigh, "We went to St. Barts again."
- There must be water. To a child, this is the defining element of a summer vacation. It can be a motel pool, a lake, a Slip 'N Slide, whatever. One time when I was a kid, it was a septic tank. We were visiting my great-grandfather in a tiny town in Oregon, and each time anyone flushed the toilet, my older sister made us kids run out the back door, stand on the lid of the septic tank, and ritualistically chant toward the sky with outstretched arms. It was awesome! See? Septic tank = water = magic!
- Scrimp on the accommodations. Kids don't care about hotel chic. They just want to be near you (until they're teenagers). So rent something small and atrociously decorated and save the money for something else. Plus it will make your home seem all the better when you get back! I recall one family road trip as a kid when we stayed in a motel that had a vibrating bed with a slot for quarters. I thought it was so fancy!
- Splurge on food. You might think a good way to save is to eat hotdogs and Fritos for the whole trip. Don't do that. You should come home from a vacation feeling physically better than when you left. If your kids are picky eaters, this is a great time to introduce new foods as part of the adventure. If your kids are pretty good eaters, then now is the time to push the envelope. At the cabin where we stayed last summer, a gourmet 4 course dinner was included with the lodging. Holy Walleye en Papillote, I told you it was heavenly. A year later and my kids still talk about the palate cleansing sorbet like it was magical elf food from Lord of the Rings. Plus, if you're doing dishes each night, what kind of vacation is that?
- Stay someplace where the windows open. No high rise hotels. You need to be able to sit on a porch at night when the kids are in bed and sip wine in the night air with your spouse. Remember your spouse? You will after your vacation.
- Take books. Lots of books. I bought a light, trashy pool-side read for my last vacation, and it was exactly what I needed. My brand new copy was missing pages 80-112, and it didn't even matter. For the kids, think about series. Hide the last book of the series in your suitcase and break it out when they need it. They'll love you for it.
- Army surplus gear. While we're talking about buying books, let's back up and talk about a few more things you should buy before you go. Sure, sunscreen and bug repellent and all that, but I'm talking excitement-raising gear. Go to an army surplus store before the trip and buy a compass, a canteen, and other low-tech but hardcore wilderness survival gear for the kids. Are they going to use it? Probably not, but it will totally get them psyched up for adventure. A trip to the army surplus store will make the kids feel part Huck Finn and part Dangerous Book for Boys. Oh! Put those on the book list!
- Do something physical. Not something lame like mini travel workouts or glut scrunches in the car. I mean a quest, or at least what feels like a quest for the kids. When I was little, we vacationed in Arkansas one summer. I remember proudly telling my dad, "Girls are good mountain climbers" after we'd hiked up a hill one day. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a big hill, but it seemed like it at the time. I felt as powerful as Wonder Woman up there, and I wasn't even wearing my Wonder Woman swimsuit at the time.
- Collect souvenirs. Encourage your kids to find little bits of nature specific to the area like nuts, pine cones, feathers, and rocks and bring them home. I think this helps them to slow down and absorb their surroundings. Just don't steal anything off limits, like when my grandmother ripped off those stalagmites from Carlsbad Caverns. It's really hard to outrun a security guard when you're wearing Ferragamos. Maybe that should be tip #11?
Above all, relax and have a good time. Remember, it's a family vacation, but it's your vacation, too. Bon voyage!
(Images: Katie Steuernagle)